We’re coming to the point, and rapidly, in which it’s safe to absorb any national-media narrative about a given event with a healthy dose of derision and a certainty that it is abject gibberish.
In that vein, the immediate and breathless conclusion that because Republican businessman Eddie Rispone, who ran through $14 million of his own money in attempting to convince Louisiana voters he was just like Trump, lost a 51-49 decision to Democrat incumbent governor John Bel Edwards in ruby-red Louisiana, it’s a “rejection” of our 45th president in one of his stronghold states.
That’s not to say Rispone’s loss isn’t a disappointment for Trump. It certainly is. He visited Louisiana three times during the race, twice in its final days as Rispone and Edwards battled in a virtual tie, and he made a significant investment in trying to drag Rispone over the finish line.
But the national pundits, many of the Never Trump or Democrat variety, have confused obvious and justifiable disappointment with dark omens for the president’s reelection and signs he no longer carries influence within red states. Rispone’s loss coming off a similar heartbreak in the Kentucky governor’s election, in which Matt Bevin came from an almost hopeless position to very nearly managing reelection, has established this narrative, which seems too attractive to let get away.
Particularly after the GOP dumped 25 seats in the Virginia legislature and let the Democrats capture majorities in both houses. That’s being added to the Trump butcher’s bill by our learned betters in the chattering classes.
Interestingly, the Virginia debacle and Rispone’s fizzle are related in a way that has nothing whatsoever to do with Trump. Heading up the GOP effort in both states is a 24-year-old political consultant once seen as a wunderkind — but not so much anymore. His name is Austin Chambers of Washington, D.C., and at the tender age of 21 he was the campaign guru for the ill-fated Eric Greitens, who had a cup of coffee as Missouri’s governor three years ago. Chambers’ fingerprints were all over the scandal of Greitens’ short term as governor, including his apparently having used state resources to conduct political activity.
You would have thought that would have derailed Chambers’ career as a hifalutin’ political consultant, but it didn’t. Instead, he turned back up with a $250,000 job as the president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, a PAC entrusted with winning down-ballot races at the state level across the country. The RSLC was the GOP’s lead player in working the Virginia legislative races, which turned into a thorough debacle practically in the RNC office’s backyard, and Chambers’ work there wasn’t given great reviews.
But it turned out that Chambers also ended up as the general consultant for Rispone’s campaign in Louisiana, which was quite peculiar seeing as though it’s the Republican Governors Association, not the RSLC, that is in charge of gubernatorial races, and what on earth was a 250K-a-year full-timer from the RSLC doing with side work when he was supposed to be holding seats in the statehouses?
Chambers’ first apparent decision as the general consultant in the Louisiana race, where I’m told he turned up in mid-September, was to uncork a vicious and completely unfair attack ad against Rispone’s Republican opponent Ralph Abraham, a medical doctor and congressman from the northern part of the state who had run a superior campaign to Rispone’s but was short-stacked and couldn’t match Rispone’s virtually unlimited war chest.
The ad borrowed from Democrat attacks on Abraham: that he had reneged on a promise to donate his congressional salary to St. Jude (he did, for his first term, before finding out that he wasn’t allowed to take a profit from his medical practice as a member of Congress and then dropped that promise when he ran for reelection). It also dinged him for missing votes on Capitol Hill, though House minority whip Steve Scalise, a member of the Louisiana congressional delegation like Abraham, assured the state’s voters he never missed a vote he was needed for, and it alleged Abraham “had voted with Nancy Pelosi more than 300 times” — a misleading claim, since most votes in Congress aren’t controversial and such a slur could be leveled at practically any member of Congress. And it also hammered Abraham for his reaction to the release of the Access Hollywood tapes at the nadir of the 2016 presidential election, when he temporarily lost faith in Trump’s ability to win the election and called for Mike Pence to take over atop the GOP ticket.
The last part of the attack was of a piece with Rispone’s campaign strategy, crafted by his media consultants Heath and Malorie Thompson of Something Else Strategies based in Easley, South Carolina, which was essentially a Xerox copy of their unimpressive campaign strategy for Ron DeSantis’ 2018 gubernatorial race. Namely, turn the candidate into a mini-Trump and polarize and nationalize the race along those lines. As Abraham had criticized the president at one time, though he’s since become one of Trump’s most vociferous defenders on Capitol Hill, that made Abraham the Never Trump candidate and thus Rispone the proper Republican standard-bearer against Edwards in Louisiana’s jungle primary.
Rispone’s campaign strategy was a dud. The mini-Trump narrative hadn’t worked, and he lagged behind Abraham in polls of the primary race into September with the October 12 primary looming despite having outspent Abraham almost 10 to 1 at the time. But the attack hit just as Abraham had no money to refute it with ads of his own, and Rispone managed to climb over Abraham, besting him 27 percent to 24 percent on primary election night. Edwards, whose polls had projected him coming close to if not topping the 50 percent needed for outright reelection, ended up with 46.5 percent.
That meant Rispone, and that war chest, was in the runoff — and Edwards was vulnerable.
The problem was that Rispone needed all of Abraham’s voters, and bad blood existed from what those voters saw as a dishonest and disrespectful attack on a good man. Edwards had treated Abraham far worse, and Abraham had immediately endorsed Rispone in his concession speech, but there lingered some 10 to 15 percent of Abraham’s voters who were either set to stay home or even to cross over to Edwards.
And Rispone never patched that wound. Though Abraham was present at both of Trump’s rallies for Rispone in the two weeks before the runoff on November 16, at neither one was there the all-important photo opportunity with both men publicly embracing. Abraham never appeared in TV ads outlining for his voters why supporting Rispone was important. And the outreach to those offended voters was never adequately made. Donors and activists screaming at the campaign that it needed to address such a crucial failing went ignored.
That lack of voter outreach was perhaps the single largest hallmark of the Rispone campaign. He failed miserably to get endorsements from local public officials throughout the state, landing a few state legislators but getting shut out of endorsements from all but two of the state’s 64 Republican Parish Executive Committees in the primary — and when the runoff began, Rispone’s team was conspicuous in its lack of interest in onboarding those Abraham supporters to his cause. In fact, the Rispone campaign was AWOL with its get-out-the-vote efforts, knocking on only a few hundred doors during the entire campaign and largely outsourcing that function to the Louisiana Republican Party. It didn’t even fully support those efforts: when the LAGOP conducted a door-knocking campaign, they ran out of Rispone push cards because the campaign didn’t print enough.
Nor did it print enough yard signs to satisfy demand. The campaign didn’t believe in emphasizing yard signs, volunteers and donors looking for them were told. In the late stages it grudgingly produced and distributed them.
Observers got the strong impression that Chambers, and the Thompsons, not to mention 27-year-old campaign manager Bryan Reed of Arlington Heights, Illinois, were really only working the race to get paid. Campaign finance reports filed with the Louisiana State Board of Ethics and searchable at its database lended heft to that impression. For example, Rispone’s campaign placed some $2 million in television ads between September 23 and October 27 and paid FlexPoint Media of New Albany, Ohio, $370,000 in media-buying commissions and fees — an eye-popping 18.5-percent commission rate almost totally unheard of in that industry. It also paid, apparently, 48 cents apiece just for production of more than 450,000 8.5 x 11 mail pieces sent in four mailings during that same time period, which is scandalously above market. And in that time period the campaign paid pollster Tony Fabrizio, who had done work for Trump’s 2016 campaign but was not employed at the end of the presidential race, some $286,000 — a number that simply cannot be justified in a state of 4.5 million people.
That polling produced a campaign message which left voters scratching their heads. Rispone had built an industrial construction firm with gross revenues of more than $300 million per year in Baton Rouge and employed nearly 4,000 people; he’d been a leader in philanthropic activities statewide, including in efforts to bring school choice to underprivileged, and mostly black, families; and he’d been a major donor to conservative candidates and causes for more than 20 years. Why, then, was he calling himself an outsider in the campaign? He wasn’t an outsider; he was a pillar of the community.
As to policy, Rispone offered vague statements about creating jobs but seemed obsessed with illegal immigration in a state where outmigration — Louisiana had suffered the loss of 75,000 more people leaving the state than moving in during Edwards’ gubernatorial term thanks to the Democrat’s $7 billion in tax increases and the resulting worst state economy in the nation — is a much larger problem than immigration. Other attempts at messaging, including a promising case that Edwards was dangerously soft on crime; that state neglect in building flyover ramps from I-10 to the New Orleans International Airport’s new terminal, which opened November 6 to disastrous and totally foreseeable traffic snarls, indicted Edwards’ competence; and other potential local-issue winners, were given short shrift or none at all.
And Rispone’s biography, which makes him emblematic of the American dream and a Louisianan people of every stripe can be proud of, was almost criminally neglected as a campaign asset. His first ad should have told a rags-to-riches story of a loving family man building a great company with his bare hands out of sheer will and managerial competence; instead it was about how he had a Trump bumper sticker on his truck.
Conservatives desperate to elect Rispone — or, more to the point, anyone other than Edwards — were appalled at the bad messaging, inability to build relationships with stakeholders and activists, and lack of engagement. That was particularly evident in the runoff campaign, when, after almost pathologically ducking appearances on local and regionally syndicated radio and TV programs (a practice that extended all the way to the Thursday before the election, when Rispone’s camp ditched an appearance on the Walton & Johnson Show, a syndicated program with the largest morning audience in the state), Rispone popped off in a radio appearance on an Alexandria station by seemingly insulting Edwards’ military service.
He didn’t, really. Edwards, noting Rispone’s lack of engagement with the news media and weak messaging (and his own soft poll numbers, which indicated Rispone was as likely as not to win despite those deficiencies), uncorked a series of abject lies aimed at scaring Democrats and swing voters. Rispone was a racist of the David Duke stripe, they said. He was going to kill the state’s college scholarship program. He’d end school lunches and supplemental pay for cops and firemen. He’d take away food stamps and even Medicare. And so on. Rispone went on the air to denounce Edwards for those lies and was asked by the host about Edwards’ having attended West Point as a cadet. His response was that he thought Edwards’ conduct was an embarrassment to the West Point honor code and that its reputation was damaged by Edwards having become a trial lawyer lying to protect his political power.
Edwards turned that into an attack on all military veterans, something the Rispone campaign never countered — and thus bled votes from a core conservative constituency.
And so it went, all the way to a 40,000-vote loss to Edwards (out of over 1.5 million votes cast) in a cycle in which, in down-ballot races, Democrats lost in almost every single competitive contest. Republicans control every other statewide office and now hold 68 of 105 House and 27 of 39 Senate seats in the Louisiana legislature. The governor’s mansion was absolutely winnable for Republicans in this cycle, but the weakness of Rispone’s campaign meant it simply wasn’t going to happen. The strategic malaise of Chambers and the Thompsons was so profound that Trump’s two general-election rallies were both held in North Louisiana when it was obvious Rispone’s largest problem was weakness in New Orleans and Baton Rouge; he was crushed 65-35 in East Baton Rouge Parish and 89-11 in Orleans Parish and even lost 57-43 in the New Orleans suburbs of Jefferson Parish, which have traditionally been GOP strongholds. Trump might have been helpful there.
On Tuesday, at a symposium at LSU covering the race, Reed — the 27-year-old campaign manager from Illinois — made the excuse that Edwards was just too popular to take down. Local observers were surprised — not by the statement, but by the fact Reed hadn’t pulled up stakes and left Louisiana yet.
Trump didn’t lose Louisiana for Rispone. His campaign team already had that job covered before the president got there.